Working men, developers, promoters, adventurers

Some of the early photographs of modern Hobbs, those images of the first oil boom in the late 1920s, and 1930s, are fascinating and sometimes hypnotizing pictures of that era which seems so long ago.

Take for instance, a photograph I’m going to call the “Sky Hawk” photo of early Hobbs. I am giving it that name because a movie poster advertising “The Sky Hawk” can be seen on an outside wall in the foreground and to the right of the picture.

The movie was released in 1929, and the historic picture was taken just before or after 1930.

The wide, dirt Broadway Street is flooded with automobiles and pedestrians. Given the fact that most of the people who had come to Hobbs then were there because oil had been discovered just outside the town, it’s not hard to imagine that the people on the street are the crews of “working men, developers, promoters, and adventurers” that historian Gil Hinshaw writes about in the definitive history of the county, “Lea, New Mexico’s Last Frontier.”

Only a few years before the photo was taken, Broadway Street was not much more than an open prairie with stubby mesquite trees the only thing in sight. In fact, despite a few communities scattered about Lea, this corner of New Mexico was still a rural region that had no paved roads and remained without a railroad.

By the way, the street in the Sky Hawk photo was called Carlsbad Street, the name Broadway given to it in 1939.

Cars line both sides of the street, parked in front of several dozen businesses, and they are also parked in the middle of the street, bunched tightly between the modern street lamps arched high above the tallest of the buildings.

Looks like the city fathers of Hobbs had wanted a broad band of light covering the hundreds of men, women, and children living in or just arriving in Hobbs.

How many automobiles can be seen in the picture? At least 75 can be counted in the three rows stretching all the way to the western horizon two or three blocks away.

The photo was taken with the camera facing west from close to Dalmont Street at the 100 block of East Broadway.

Here is Hinshaw’s description of how quickly and dramatically Hobbs had changed and what the streets looked like when the first oil well came in:

“So, the word, sometimes embellished, sometimes understated, went out late in 1927 that sequestered on the Llano was a place called Hobbs where drilling was underway. This became momentous news for those wise in the ways of oil, especially if they had learned previously that leasing had taken place in the same area and that the results of magnometer tests on the earth’s surface there held out great expectations.

“Thus, the stage was set at Hobbs for the unfolding of one of the last great oil booms of the West—studded with all the classic trappings: Instant towns that operated around the clock, instant wealth pouring from the earth, crews of soiled and sunburned working men, flocks of developers, promoters, adventurers and professional people of every descriptions moving in the vanguard. Before this drama was concluded the rural Hobbs community would be assimilated by the technological industrial world of America.”

What does the Sky Hawk image say about technological and industrial America that had come to Lea County in the early 1930s?

Beginning on the right, a viewer can see that Hobbs almost instantly had these kinds of businesses: DeLuxe Cleaners & Tailors; Union Café; a movie theater; Drugs; J.B.Still Jewellry; another Café; Day Drugs; a Bus Terminal; and a least another dozen unidentifiable businesses to the west.

On the left side of the photo, these businesses can be seen: Shower and Baths; Storage; Flats fixed; Plains Drugs;

Pure Drug; Barber Shop; Drugs; Café; REEL Theater; and another dozen or more businesses that cannot be identified.

Just in the one section of Broadway, it looks like the newcomers to Hobbs desired medicine more than they did food.

I have zoomed into the photograph in an attempt to see what type of clothes the pedestrians are wearing. One or two men have ties with their white shirts, but most of the individuals are in the clothes of working men.

I see no women in this picture, but the images at bottom-center appear to be children climbing out of a car.

I am puzzled by the fact that there are no saloons or bars in this downtown section of Hobbs. From what I have read, bars and dance halls played an important role in the social life of early Hobbs.

What kind of movies might have been seen by the crews who had come to work in the southeast New Mexico oil fields?

Perhaps seen at the Reel Theater, “The Sky Hawk” is a World War I story of a British aviator, a dashing hero “who is discharged following an airplane crash that happened under suspicious circumstances.” It was one of the first talkie films that had begun to be mass- produced a couple of years earlier when silent films became old technology.

Taken almost a century ago, the photo is intriguing because it makes us aware of just how different Hobbs and Lea County look today.

I like this photograph for many reasons, including the fact I relish black and white photos; I savor looking at old cars; and because for me the sight of the working men brings a rawness and reality to the scene.

These are the same kinds of working, adventurous folks who could have been in Alaska in 19th century gold rush days.

In addition to being gripping and sometimes spellbinding, old photos can make us visually conscious of our history. They make us see the narratives we usually learn through words.

Jim Harris is the director of the Lea County Museum in Lovington.
Burkett Shaw
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